“It takes time and patience to be a good detective”: Annette Marfording reviews Detective Work by John Dale

Detective Work by John Dale. Xoum 2015.

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John Dale is a Sydney based author of three previous novels and a novella, as well as of non-fiction including essays, the memoir Wild Life about the fatal shooting of his grandfather in Tasmania. His award-winning book Huckstepp, about the former prostitute and whistle-blower about police corruption Sallie-Anne Huckstep who was found dead in a lake in Centennial Park, is probably is best-known work. Judging by his body of work, it is fair to say that crime and police corruption are of major interest to him.

And so it is in Detective Work, his latest novel. Young protagonist detective Dimitri Telegonus and Detective Senior Constable Gale Ryan are part of a new task force which re-investigates serious unsolved crime. Their assignment is the unsolved disappearance of 21-year-old escort Renee Summers in 1994. During the course of their investigation they re-interview Summers’s friends, her former boyfriend, the escort business managers and the last known client she had visited, one Gregory Samsa. Samsa has always been the prime suspect, but nothing could ever be pinned on him. After he vanishes, their search for him leads them to Tasmania, including Bruny Island where Telegonus’s mother lives.

Dale opens the novel skilfully, introducing the protagonist as an insomniac on one of his regular night drives through Sydney. The beginning of the second paragraph reads: “He crossed into Double Bay with the wind blowing at his tail lights, eyes fixed on a lycra-clad jogger, checking out the man’s sweating face. Not that he expected to find him here…” And immediately the reader is hooked with the suspense of who this man is he’s searching for and why is he searching for him.

As a teacher of creative writing at UTS the author is likely to tell his students about the essence of conflict in the creation of drama, and the novel is full of it. Telegonus knows that Ryan, who is in his fifties, “had worked Major Crime South West at a time when the Commanding Officer … was found guilty of seventeen counts of corruption.” The protagonist’s pairing with a senior officer whom he suspects of being corrupt himself immediately sets up one such conflict. Furthermore, there’s discord between the two detectives, not only about the direction their investigation should take, but also in terms of their personalities. Ryan thinks Telegonus is stuck-up, telling him, “Rule number one. Detectives don’t read books,” when Telegonus links Samsa’s name to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Telegonus thinks Ryan is an ogre because of his stream of racist and sexist comments.

Most other conflicts are internal ones: Telegonus finds an envelope with money on his desk, which creates the dilemma whether to report it; he wonders whether to continue his relationship with his academic girlfriend; he has a fraught relationship with his mother; and when the investigation stalls, he fears he is incompetent, and the bosses threaten to pull the plug.

The novel is written from the third person point of view of Telegonus as the protagonist, which works well to show his internal conflicts. Both Telegonus and Ryan are complex characters and the author uses quick brushstrokes and dialogue effectively to enhance characterisation. Here is one example involving Ryan when they are told to work together early on in the novel: “Ryan lumbered over to him. ‘You the Greek kid, right?’” The verb ‘lumbered’ suggests Ryan’s body type, ‘Greek’ suggests Ryan’s prone to stereotype, and ‘kid’ could imply a patronising attitude or at the very least suggests that he thinks he’s got to teach Telegonus how to do detective work. This is reinforced a few pages further on, immediately after he’s told him that detectives don’t read fiction: “Well, when you do this shit, you gotta do a lot of things right. You have to be a first-rate interrogator, you have to be articulate in court, you need to gather evidence, all the forensic stuff. You gotta work the street. You gotta work the phone. It takes time and patience to be a good detective. There’s set rules. You can’t learn them sitting in an office comparing the name of a suspect to some character in a book. Muster up, son, we’re going for a drive.”

Another plus is that John Dale’s Australia reflects the multicultural and multi-class society in which we live, which is still rare among non-indigenous Australian writers – Christos Tsiolkas and Maxine Beneba Clarke being two notable exceptions. Furthermore and crucially, he does not adopt a painting-by-numbers approach to crime fiction, and indeed dispenses with the formula in one critical respect. The protagonist’s girlfriend’s work as an academic gives him the opportunity to fling some barbs at academia – something that this reviewer and former academic particularly enjoyed.

The one aspect of John Dale’s writing that did not impress this reader was a sense of place. A focus on naming suburbs and landmarks does not evoke place; that requires imagery provided in vivid detail. But it is a rare author who excels at all aspects of writing, and Detective Work is definitely a novel that I would highly recommend.

 – Annette Marfording

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Annette Marfording is a writer, broadcaster and critic who lives in regional New South Wales. She was Program Director of the Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival until 2015. Her book Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors features 21 in-depth conversations with Australian authors on their books, central themes in their body of work, writing methods, central tips for aspiring writers and more. It is available in independent bookshops in Sydney and on the NSW Mid-North-Coast and online at www.coop.com.au or http://www.lulu.com/shop/annette-marfording/celebrating-australian-writing/paperback/product-22192469.html. All profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

Detective Work is available from http://www.xoum.com.au/shop/detective-work/

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